Singles in Antiquity

Rome, Academia Belgica, 28-30 May, 2015

Singleness is not only represented as a new and rapidly increasing lifestyle in the present days. It also became a fashionable field of research of social history. In a series of sessions of the European Social Science History Conference (Glasgow, 2012) questions were raised concerning the structural and cultural particularities of 'single life' in the cities. A conference at the University of Antwerp (Singles in the Cities of North-West Europe, c. 1000-2000) in March 2013 further expanded upon the insights from the Glasgow-conference.

In this new field of research, the silence of ancient historians is striking. This may be partly explained by the lack of demographical data: there are virtually no statistics or censuses enabling to show how many men or women lived single in the towns of the Roman Empire. But far more problematic is the definition of singleness. In a society which did not yet know the Christian concept of marriage, in an environment where both the contracting of a marriage and divorce were fast and easy, the lines between married and unmarried were somehow vague. This may explain why there is not a proper or much used Latin or Ancient Greek word to denote the status of a bachelor or a spinster. We might even raise the question whether singleness for the ancient period could possible be defined as being unmarried. But even without the criterium of marriage, other approaches towards singleness in Antiquity are possible.

Since this is the first conference ever on the theme, aiming at a book volume which will set the path for further research, both a chronological and thematic scope will be used to answer a variety of fundamental questions. The questions will be framed within a comparative perspective - taking attention to the way historians of other periods deal with the question.

(1) The possibility of some demographic insight into singleness - and the way it was distributed (widows, unmarried, divorced, orphan). Difference between urban and rural environment.

(2) Gendered aspects of the issue.

(3) Social and economic drawbacks or incentives for single persons.

(4) Social networks and the possibility of a subculture of singles.

(5) Juridic consequences of singleness.

(6) Funerary commemoration and representation of singleness.

(7) The impact of Christianity.


Christian Laes, University of Antwerp, Free University of Brussels
Sabine Huebner, University of Basel

Dates, Location

28-30th May 2015,
Academia Belgica in Rome.

Small conference, maximum two days.



15:30-16:00 Welcome & Coffee

  • 16:00-16:30 What’s in a Single? Roman Antiquity and a Comparative World Approach (Christian Laes)

Panel I: Demographic, Archaeological, and Socio-Economic Approaches

Chair: Christian Laes

  • 16:30 – 17:00 The Demographic Background for Singles: Roman Egypt and Beyond (Sabine Huebner)
  • 17:00 – 17:30  Looking for Singles in the Archaeological Record (Anna Boozer)
  • 17:30-18:00 Singleness as Business Strategy? Economic Incentives or Drawbacks of Living Alone (Wim Broekaert)

18:00 – 18:30 Discussion

18:30-19:30 Reception


Panel II: Singles in Judaism, Chair: Ville Vuolanto

  • 9:30-10:00 Ranon Katzoff „Age at Marriage of Jewish Girls in Late Antiquity and the Rabbinic Rejection of Singleness“
  • 10:00-10:30 John Martens „Was Jesus Single?“

10:30-11:00 Coffee break

  • 11:00-11:30 Kevin Funderburk „Contesting the Temple: Nazirite vows and primitive Christian celibacy“

11:30-12:00 Discussion

12:00-14:00 Lunch

Panel III: Being Single in the Roman world

Chair: Sabine Huebner

  • 14:00– 14:30 Penalizing celibacy? A Socio-cultural approach to Augustus’ marriage legislation (Judith Evans Grubbs)
  • 14:30-15:00  Living “Single” by Catullus and Cicero (Harri Kiiskinen)
  • 15:00-15:30 Detecting Roman Ideas on Female Singleness: a Literary perspective (Elina Pyy)

15:30-16:00 Coffee break

  • 16:00-16:30 Single Commemoration in Latin Epigraphy (Hanne Sigismund Nielsen)
  • 16:30-17:00 Single as a Lena. The Depiction of Procuresses in Roman Augustan Literature (Mina Petrova Petrova)
  • 17:00-17:30 Single Women and Slaves in Roman Antiquity (Ilse Mueller)

17:30-18:00 Discussion 


Panel IV: Late antique Christianity: the rise of the ideal of being single

Chair: John Martens

  • 9:00-9:30 Single Commemoration in Christian inscriptions from Rome (Thomas Goessens)
  • 9:30-10:00 Three Different Ways of Life: Being Single in the Fourth Century CE (Raffaela Cribiore)
  • 10:00-10:30 Singleness as a Continuity Strategy. Ascetics Between the Earthly and Heavenly Family (Ville Vuolanto)
  • 10:30-11:00 Augustine, “Philosophical Retirement” and the Singles Life (Geoff Nathan)

11:00-11:30 Coffee break

  • 11:30-12:00 Singles in Early Byzantine Literature (Stephanos Efthymiadis)
  • 12:00-12:30 “Listen to my mistreatment”: Coptic evidence for the difficulties faced by single women in Late Antique and early Islamic Egypt  (Jennifer Cromwell)

12:30-13:00 Discussion

13:00-14:30 Lunch

Panel V: Comparative voices; Chair: Christian Laes and Sabine Huebner

  • 14:30-15:00 Singles and Celibacy in Early Islam (Mohammed Hocine Benkheira)
  • 15:00-15:30 Singleness in the Early Modern Period: How Do Historians Cope with It? (Julie De Groot)
  • 15:30-16:00 Singleness in the Libri Animarum (19th Century Italy) (Matteo Manfredini)

15:30-16:00 Final Discussion

20:00 Conference Dinner